Three years ago, Pittsburgh didn't have a single Venezuelan restaurant. There was no spot to order from an Iranian menu, nowhere to eat Afghani food on a meal out.
Three years ago, co-founder Jon Rubin, 49, of Point Breeze, opened Conflict Kitchen as a simple take-out window in East Liberty with his partner Dawn Weleski. Since then, and they have offered menus from all three of those cuisines in an effort to familiarize Pittsburgh with the cultures of countries with which the United States is in conflict.
On Sunday, the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh will recognize the work Conflict Kitchen, now located in Schenley Plaza, has done since its opening to engage the international community. Chef Robert Sayre will accept an award for the kitchen Sunday during the Center's Humanity Day ceremony.
"The concept of the restaurant is just for two cultures to become more familiar, just to learn more about the citizens of that country and their day-to-day lives, their food and their culture," Mr. Sayre, 33, of Stanton Heights, said.
"People are people even though our governments may have disputes."
Julie Webb, outreach coordinator at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said Conflict Kitchen expands ethnic food options for eaters in the city as it rotates through new menus from foreign countries every few months. But Conflict Kitchen will receive one of 11 awards to be presented this weekend because, like all of those to be honored, the restaurant works to create a sense of welcome among the global community in Pittsburgh.
"[Conflict Kitchen] is a bridge-building opportunity for Pittsburghers to learn about an Islamic country," Ms. Webb said. "I bought food there when they were featuring Afghanistan, so it's really dear to our hearts whenever people are promoting bridge-building opportunities to understand countries that are largely Islamic. It's endearing to us."
Mr. Sayre said the Center and Conflict Kitchen work toward a similar goal in Pittsburgh -- breaking down stereotypes that exist about countries like Iran and Afghanistan that are in conflict with the United States.
"The outreach that the Muslim community in the U.S. does has a similar vein to ours. ... What we try and do as well is to show that governments are not [always] representatives of a culture," Mr. Sayre said.
To create his menus at Conflict Kitchen, Mr. Sayre works as directly as possible with those cultures he wants to showcase. He traveled to Cuba to cook in local restaurants and homes to perfect dishes like the lechon asada -- a dish of slow-roasted pork -- that debuted July 1 in the restaurant's current Cuban cycle. In August, he will journey to South Korea to interview North Korean refugees about their country's traditions and foods.
These authentic menus can introduce locals to new foods from other countries, but Mr. Sayre said it can also introduce them to the conflicts that characterize the United States' relationship with these other nations as well. Since the Cuban cycle began, he said customers often ask, "What's our conflict with Cuba?"
Those questions are a sign to Mr. Rubin that his mission in founding Conflict Kitchen -- creating a bridge between plates and politics, cultures and cuisine -- has come to life as the restaurant grows.
"I think it's important to recognize, No. 1, the global world we're all living in," he said. "No. 2, on a local level, it's important to recognize and celebrate the types of populations that exist in Pittsburgh that often aren't on the radar for a lot of people. For us, we started the project as a way of bringing these cultures to the forefront."
The take-out window in Schenley Plaza is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. And the food from that window will continue to be a way to gather different cultures around a table together, Mr. Rubin said.
"Recipes aren't based on ideology," Mr. Rubin said. "They're based on culture and history, and [food] is a great way of not only bypassing ideology, but bypassing your intellect and engaging folks at an experiential level with a culture at an entry point."
Humanity Day presentations begin at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh on Sunday at 6 p.m. To attend, RSVP to email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/